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When it comes to foreign-language TV, slow is often thought of as best, as people like to curl up under the duvet with a glacial Scandinavian thriller. But sometimes, you need something fast and furious to heat up a night on the sofa – and Elite Squad, a thriller from France, is as fast and furious as it gets.
First shown in its home country back in 2008, where it was called Flics, the series is created by Olivier Marchal, the man behind Braquo. And it’s as brutal as you’d expect.
That ruthless streak shoots through the whole production, starting with its plot: it centres around two former friends, Yach and Constantine, who work in top tiers of Paris’ police force. Yach heads up the BRI (Search and Intervention Brigade), a maverick detective who shoots from the hip. Constantine couldn’t be more different, with his fondness of following correct procedure. But while they were once BFFs, something happened years ago that drove a wedge between them. It’s not hard to guess the gist of the incident, as Marchal drip-feeds flashbacks throughout the opening episodes, but the exact nature is left unsaid – and that approach is precisely what makes Elite Squad such an exciting watch: the specifics don’t matter. For now, what matters is they hate each other. And that’s it.
The exposition-light script works so well because the cast are so good. Frederic Diefenthal is wonderfully frayed at the edges, his often drunk, bearded rule-breaker as likeable when he’s bantering in the bar as when he’s loitering outside his ex-wife’s apartment, glimpsing the daughter that he only rarely sees. The company he keeps is more criminal than cop, and he blends in easily. Yann Sundberg, meanwhile, may appear more successful in some regards, but cuts a deceptively more tragic figure, a clean-shaven, distant man, dressed usually in black.
The actors both sell their loathing of each other with convincing glares, overseen by the steely presence of Catherine Marchal’s Legrand, the boss of the Paris police, who understands all too well what keeps the men apart – and how to keep them together without all hell breaking loose. But, of course, it frequently threatens to, as the two branches of law enforcement struggle to work alongside each other.
Marchal structures the show with a keen eye for contrasts; one sleeps in a fancy apartment, the other kips in his car; one finds their first main suspect, Albanian criminal Vlad, by the book, the other is willing to plant evidence and do deals to get what he needs; both of them have interns assigned under them, but only one (Anne Rossi, assigned to Constantine) poignantly reminds her superior of someone else. Constantine’s reaction, and Legrand’s reaction, to Rossi’s presence, again, tells us all we need to know, even without the screenplay spelling it out.
Old memories, hidden secrets, familiar enemies and mediating bosses. That’s an awful lot of back-story to bear, but director Nicolas Cuche makes sure the weight never slows things down: Elite Squad’s greatest asset, even more than its taut script and talented cast, is its pacing. After an explosive opening, within the first hour, we get an equally blistering shootout, while the bullet-ridden flashbacks punctuate the more serious drama with stylish bangs. Throughout, there’s a sense that the action is fuelled by the unspoken grudge of these two men, just as it drives their personal relationships, a dovetailing of character and structure that makes for slick, smart thrills. Even Rossi’s surprisingly nuanced, and shockingly sad, storyline propels the show forward as it pauses for sombre reflection. It’s a difficult balancing act, but Elite Squad pulls it off with aplomb. With no moment wasted in introducing our big bad, Oriou (Marc Barbe), this eight-hour box set is primed to whizz by in no time at all. Which leaves you all the more room for that slow-paced Scandi noir next week. After this rush of adrenaline, you’ll need it.
All of Elite Squad is available to stream exclusively (and for free) on All 4’s Walter Presents.
For more information on the other foreign-language shows available, see our Walter Presents TV guide.